Susie Steiner, who died at the age of 51, three years after being diagnosed with incurable brain cancer, was once asked how much she looked like Incident Squad Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw Cambridgeshire majors first encountered by readers in her 2016 novel Missing, Presumed. “Manon is only 98.34% me – the rest is pure invention,” she replied.
Although she was obviously joking – she had never been a police officer, nor was she unfortunately mixed up in the world of internet dating, as Manon was at the start of her fictional life – her answer had a kernel of truth to it. . It is Steiner’s interest in and intuitive understanding of the dynamics between people, her ability to be aware of the complexity of their desires and frailties, and her commitment to exploring questions of justice and equality, that animated its protagonist and made it so memorable.
DS, and later DI, Bradshaw — his unusual first name, readers learn, is Hebrew for “bitter,” and a whim of his mother — had three outings: Missing, Presumed, centered on the abduction of a young woman whose well-to-do parents are friends with the Home Secretary, putting the investigative team under increased pressure; Persons Unknown (2017), in which Bradshaw’s adopted son, who is black, is arrested on suspicion of murder, and is based on a real case; and Remain Silent (2020), released shortly after the lockdown began, which explores a violent death in the Lithuanian migrant worker community and also sees Bradshaw confronting her partner’s cancer diagnosis.
Steiner, unbeknownst to her, had written Remain Silent with “a 9cm tumor pushing my brain over its midline” and, in an article she wrote about writing, cancer and lockdown, she described the wish to have been able to include the specificity of his treatment in the novel: the hard chairs of the waiting rooms, the contrast between vigorous medical staff and exhausted patients.
The urge to capture detail was typical of his writing. Born in North London, the daughter of two psychoanalysts, Deborah (née Pickering) and John Steiner, Susie went to Henrietta Barnett School and studied English at York University before embarking on a career as a journalist. . She started at the Hendon and the Finchley Times before moving to the Times and the Telegraph took her to a post as editor and editor at the Guardian in 2001.
She stayed at the paper for 11 years, although she was out of the office on a writing retreat in Devon when she spotted a poster on the kitchen wall with the words Keep Calm and Carry On. She discovered it was from an independent bookstore in Alnwick, which she contacted so she could recommend it to readers of Weekend magazine.
She was acclaimed, she later recalled, for her “message of stoicism and patience”, although her phenomenal popularity also prompted her to insist, semi-humorously, that she could not be blamed for its later ubiquity. (The posters were clearly something that caught her eye: In Persons Unknown, she features shopkeeper Birdie Fielding, who often consults one bearing Tony Blair’s image for advice. Birdie appeared in an article Steiner has writes about the dangers of the ‘butt’: “While some authors’ fantasies are about sex and death, mine are very much about unfettered access to the chip aisle. I dwell a lot on Frazzles in this novel. As Birdie puts it: ‘He who said nothing tastes as good as feels thin, has never started his third mince pie.'”)
At the Guardian, Steiner met journalist Tom Happold (who is now director of creative video agency Happen Digital); they married in 2006, settled in West Hampstead and had two sons, George and Ben. Steiner, her husband told me, had always wanted children and was a very loving mother; and the compassion and empathy with which she portrayed Manon Bradshaw’s experience of single life and childlessness, after which she first adopts a child and later becomes pregnant, is striking.
She worked on her first novel, Homecoming (2013), for several years, drawing on her knowledge of the North York Moors, where she and Happold had a cottage, to create a multi-generational portrait of a farming family. But it was with the Bradshaw series that she really found her fictional feet, earning praise from readers, critics, fellow mystery writers and award juries; it was twice shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Prize for Novel of the Year, and Missing, Presumed was shortlisted for a place in the Richard & Judy Book Club. A great admirer of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, she also had the ability to combine strong characterization with social commentary, and weave it into a compelling plot.
She faces challenges which, like the poster she popularizes, require stoicism and patience. Steiner suffered from an inherited, degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, which was diagnosed in childhood and worsened in adulthood; in 2013, she was registered blind. Her friend the novelist Lissa Evans described brisk walks on Hampstead Heath, in which she would forget that Steiner had little vision, so absorbed were they both in their conversation; she was, said Evans, “so smart and funny, direct and kind, warm but caustic, penetrating but easy to talk to, an enormous presence in a person of ordinary size”.
In an article for the Independent on Sunday about his blindness which quoted Milton, Joyce and the mythological figure Tiresias, Steiner wrote fascinatingly about the links between his condition and writing, saying: “You depend on the help of others. You can’t dictate – you have to wait. It’s both scary and difficult, but I think it does the writer a favor. This allowed her to appreciate, she was convinced, the sometimes invisible suffering of others.
The biggest blow was the discovery, in May 2019, of a grade 4 glioblastoma, after which she underwent six hours of brain surgery and months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy; she wrote movingly about her situation both on social media and in print, maintaining great humor even in unusually dark times.
She is survived by her husband and sons, her sister, Kate, and her brother, Michael, and her parents.